The New York Times’ 1619 Project seeks to reframe the United States’ history from the African American point of view. The project, as noted by Sean Wilentz in his “A Matter of Facts,” can be most apparently compared to W. E. B. Du Bois’ “Black Reconstruction in America” which mounted a “commanding counter-interpretation” (Wilentz, 2020) against the Dunning School’s racist mischaracterizations of the Reconstruction era. The 1916 Project has no such specific enemy, but rather seeks to remedy a general absence of ‘black perspective’ in American historical teaching. It claims, among other things, that the often lauded ‘abolitionist’ Abraham Lincoln believed that “black people are the obstacle to national unity”; that the Declaration of Independence was “primarily” motivated by a wish to “protect the institution of slavery”; that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA” of the United States; and that “for the most part, black Americans fought back alone” against racism (Hannah-Jones, 2019).
The 1916 Project is one sided. Likely the writers of it themselves would not contend this claim. The overarching narrative portrayed is one of an African American peoples fighting tirelessly against their white oppressors to shape America into the democracy it originally promised to be. At every available opportunity, the project points out the tyranny of white Americans, citing “unthinkable violence against the formerly enslaved, wide-scale voter suppression, electoral fraud,” “slavocracy,” and “hypocrisy,” among other things, in its “America Wasn’t a Democracy, Until Black Americans Made It One” (Hannah-Jones, 2019). This accomplishes the admirable and much-needed goal of pointing out the thoroughly evidenced immorality with which so many acted during America’s inception and well into its activity as a nation. However, there arises an issue when such a lengthy project so completely antagonizes an entire race and so utterly neglects any mention of a single positively impactful white actor or a single negatively impactful black one.
One could feasibly remark, ‘Is this absolute viewpoint not an exact parallel to those taken on by so many white historians and journalists of the past, and even present?’ The answer is yes, that is precisely what this is. One could extend, ‘Should we not then welcome it, as a balance to the scales?’ This is where I must firmly disagree. The solution to a white-led narrative is not, and has never been, a black-led narrative. The problem is that two extremes rarely converge to form moderation; rather, they goad one another further and further into extremity. As Wilentz (2020) writes, such narrative-driven, exclusory retellings of history only serve to “make it easier for critics hostile to the [project’s] overarching mission to malign it for their own ideological and partisan purposes.” Then, if not ‘balance the scales,’ what do we do? Adam Serwer (2019) commented, quite correctly, that “given the state of American education on slavery, some kind of adjustment is sorely needed.” Slavery and segregation are vitally important parts of American history, and should never be neglected out of embarrassment on the part of white people. We should aggressively endorse the astonishing perseverance of African Americans– celebrate their victories, regret their losses, and honour their greatest. We should shun our ancestors for their abhorrent, immoral behavior. Simultaneously, we should learn about those few African Americans who fought against civil rights and for slavery– learn why they held those viewpoints, and how they contributed to the American story. We should learn about those white Americans who fought alongside the African Americans, and about those who remained neutral. We should seek to understand the societal circumstances which perpetuated racism among even the non-malicious. Limiting ourselves to a generalization like ‘black good, white bad’ (or conversely, ‘white good, black bad’), whether in history or in modern day, is never a benefit.
Serwer (2019) summed up the argument between Hannah-Jones and Wilentz as such:
Where Wilentz and his colleagues see the rising anti-slavery movement in the colonies and its influence on the Revolution as a radical break from millennia in which human slavery was accepted around the world, Hannah-Jones’ essay outlines how the ideology of white supremacy that sustained slavery still endures today.
I question, why not both? These two things are not contradictory. The anti-slavery and civil rights eras were enormous steps towards equality AND there is still lots of work to be done. African Americans fought long and hard, bravely and remarkably, against their white oppressors AND a not-insignificant number of white people fought with them. Abraham Lincoln acted at times in the interest of black people AND at times against their interests. White slave-holders are responsible for their blatantly immoral racism AND many of them were not actively malicious people. In an era of ideological echo chambers, aggressive partisan division, and rampant political extremism, we need ‘and’ more than ever. Unfortunately, the New York Times squandered the opportunity to fill in the other side of ‘and’, opting instead to circulate yet another exclusory one-sided story in the form of the 1916 Project.